All quotations and statistics are from the article “Targeting Success” by Kelly D. Patterson and Mathew M. Singer found in Interest Group Politics Seventh Edition edited by Allan J. Cigler and Burdett A. Loomis.
This will be broken up in a series of posts, hopefully, all of it will be up by the end of tonight.
A Brief History:
The National Rifle Association (NRA) has frequently been called the most powerful lobbying group in America. Both Democrats and Republicans have stated that they would go against the group more often, if it wasn’t so powerful. The NRA has had a surprising impact on how individuals interpret their 2nd Amendment Rights and how we, as a nation, have discussions about gun control.
The NRA arose after the Civil War, when Union officers tried to combat the problem of poor marksmanship and rifle skills the Union army showed during the war. The original charter of the NRA stated: “The object for which [this organization] is formed is the improvement of its members in marksmanship, and to promote the introduction of the system of accuracy drill and rifle practice as part of the military drill of the National Guard of this and other states for those purposes to provide a suitable range or ranges in the vicinity of the City of New York.” The organization grew slowly until Congress passed the Militia Act of 1903. The act “authorized creation of a national board for the promotion of rifle practice.” One of the first things that the board did was to sell surplus weapons and ammunitions to rifle clubs throughout the United States. This allowed there to be potential members who could help the organization grow.
Over time, the NRA “built on the mandate in the original charter to adjust to the changing political climate.” The NRA “gradually began to play an active role in efforts by the federal government to regulate firearms.” We can see this by looking at the three main gun control acts passed by Congress in the 1930s and the NRA’s role in the legislation. The first of these was The Uniform Firearms Act of 1930. This act “forbade the delivery of pistols to ‘convicts, drug addicts, habitual drunkards, incompetents, and minors under the age of 18.’” Guess who was a special consultant in passing this act? The president of the NRA, Karl T. Frederick. “The NRA also supported the National Firearms Act of 1934, which taxed and required registration of such firearms as machine guns, sawed-off rifles, and sawed-off shotguns.” The NRA also supported the Federal Firearms Act of 1938, “which imposed regulations on interstate and foreign commerce in firearms and pistol ammunition and restricted the use of sawed-off shotguns and machine guns.” As Patterson and Singer note, “the NRA worked as an insider and supported some restrictions on gun ownership.”
In 1968, the organization began to change. After the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, Congress passed the Gun Control Act of 1968. The Gun Control Act “prohibited unlicensed persons from buying, selling, or otherwise transferring rifles, shotguns, handguns, or ammunition outside of their home state or in any form of interstate commerce.” The NRA viewed this act as infringing on their 2nd Amendment Rights and opposed the act. But the NRA was still a group of hunters and gun owners primarily interested in sport and not prepared for the world of politics. The first vice president of the NRA, Neal Know, stated that “leadership lacked a taste for [politics]. They considered lobbying beneath them.” The NRA had fewer than a million members at the time of the act and was unable to stop the passage of the act. The NRA realized that they needed to “provide ideological, or what are often called purposive, incentives to its members.” The ideological incentives would be defined primarily around the constitutional right to keep and bear arms.
After the passage of the Gun Control Act and the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, the NRA began to change from a mainly sporting organization into a politically motivated giant. Leaders of the NRA “first looked at the failures of the organization’s past and hoped to make up for lost ground in their efforts to reverse components of the congressional acts of the late 1960s.” Many of the bills presented to Congress in the 1970s sought to repeal different aspects of the Gun Control Act of 1968. In July of 1977, the NRA changed its charter to reflect their new stances. The new amendment stated that one of the purposes of the NRA is “generally to encourage the lawful ownership and use of small arms by citizens of good repute; and to educate, promote, and further the right of the individual of good repute to keep and bear arms as a common law and constitutional right both of the individual citizen and of the collective milita.” This made it official that the NRA was to pursue its own goal of protecting 2nd Amendment Rights.
From 1977 to 1984 the membership of the NRA steadily increased from a little over 1 million to nearly 3 million members. During this time, around 200 bills were presented to Congress that dealt with the issue of gun control. During the period of 1984-1991, growth stayed around the same at about 2.7 million members, reaching a low of 2.5 million in 1991. During that time, approximately 100 bills were presented to Congress about gun control. Beginning in 1990, with the Brady Bill, the number of gun control bills before Congress increased. “With the increase in gun control bills and the election of a pro-gun control president in 1992, the membership of the NRA soared.” It rose from its low of 2.5 million to 3.5 million in 1994.
The NRA also began to use its monthly magazines, American Rifleman and American Hunter, to campaign more actively against certain legislation. These actions attracted new members and encouraged members to renew their membership in the NRA. The NRA campaigned for Republican candidates for Congress, with success; however, this success caused a drop in membership from 3.4 million in 1994 to 2.8 million in 1995.
At the end of the 1990s membership began to rise again. In the 1997-1998 Congress, 128 bills were introduced that would have regulated the sale or use of firearms. From 1999-2000, 158 bills were introduced. The greatest perceived threat during this time was the potential for licensing of handguns. An NRA opponent stated that for gun owners, “licensing equals registration; registration equals confiscation.” With the election of George W. Bush to the White House in 2000, with a seemingly sympathetic Congress, membership leveled off. Chuck Cunningham, federal affairs director of the NRA stated that the “drop in membership following the 2000 election was due to the belief among individuals that they did not need to be members because the legislative and presidential threats to Second Amendment rights would not be very great during the George W. Bush administration.”